It’s midwinter in Somerset and the sky is dreary. Rain pours unceremoniously from on high. The roads are sticky with mud, and life, rather wisely, is waiting it out somewhere warm and dry. Yet for the car I am about to meet, it all feels rather appropriate. Welcome Ethelred “Ethel” the Unready, a 1967 rally-spec DB6.
“It was all a bit whimsical,” laughs Alexandroff as we clamber into Ethel and roar along the winding country roads that thread through the Mendips. “I signed up on the spur of the minute and thought little of it.” An audacious event first held in 1907, the current iteration of the Peking to Paris race is perhaps the toughest vintage and classic car endurance rally on the planet, and one the organisers recommend only for experienced crews with a wealth of mechanical knowledge. “There are posers and piston heads, and I’m certainly not a piston head,” chuckles Alexandroff. He was therefore rightly nervous when he found himself in Beijing with his close friend and mechanically unenlightened navigator David “Fangio” Jones, with just a stash of weighty luxuries and the open road before them. “We were the jokers from the start, and it was only on the third day that we even realised it was a race,” he laughs. “Every night there’d be a sheet with the rankings and sadly Ethel was comfortably at the bottom from the outset.”
Alexandroff drops down into second and the delectable 4.2-litre engine responds with a raucous growl. Originally bought as a barn find, the DB6 underwent an extensive 18-month restoration by John Goldsmith with the Peking to Paris in mind. Goldsmith, who had completed the first modern iteration of the rally in 1997 in another DB6, was the perfect man for the job. “We wanted to make everything as simple and accessible as possible,” he tells me. “This helps minimise something terminal that stops the car moving forwards.” And while Alexandroff and Jones were ultimately successful, even the best laid plans can go awry. “As we were driving through the northern part of China, there was a big twang and suddenly the back end shot up,” says Alexandroff. “And I was oblivious to the fact that we still had to cross Mongolia.”
There was Ethel, at the back of the pack with a collapsed suspension, with the unforgiving tracks of the Mongolia steppes yet to come. The shocks were replaced first with the spares packed by Goldsmith, but these failed within hours. The second set was fitted on the Mongolian border using Lada parts. These were replaced a third time in Novosibirsk, Russia, with shocks from a Gazelle light truck, and finally, in Omsk, Russia, with Renault light van shocks that remarkably lasted until the end. An Aston Lada Gazelle Renault Martin has a certain ring to it — a distinctive Lada Viking longship badge, found by one of the officials, still adorns Ethel’s rear. The DB6 endured, almost despite Alexandroff’s best efforts.
On the 10th day, near the shores of
the immense Khyargas Lake in the Uvs province of northwest Mongolia, Ethel’s journey was almost terminated for good. Travelling down a narrow gorge, the heady aroma of petrol began to swirl within the cabin. Alarmed, Alexandroff decided to turn around to seek help from a rally official a short way behind. “I reversed the car across this very narrow alley and got the exhaust pipes jammed in the bank, and the car stalled,” he says. “There we were, slap bang across the gorge, with the whole of the rally about to descend around a blind corner.” Luckily, the first car was a support vehicle. “They managed to drag us off the track just as the first big Bentley came storming around the corner. That would have been ignominious.”
Ethel’s tale is filled with such anecdotes and is testament to the sheer adventure of the event. “We somehow made our way along with everybody shaking their heads while many cars were breaking down. When we finally made it to Paris, I was disappointed they didn’t give us a prize for the hardiest expedition members,” he laughs. After 8,000 miles on some of the world’s toughest roads, it’s only fitting that yet another breakdown would come on the A303 near Stonehenge, just 50 miles from home.
This story is an extract from an article featured in the AM50 issue of Aston Martin magazine, out now. If you're not already a subscriber, visit magazine.astonmartin.com/magazine-subscription so that you can read the full story.